Monday, September 10, 2007

Greasecar TDI Edition: Part 2

"The diesel engine can be fed with vegetable oils and would help considerably in the development of agriculture of the countries which use it... The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time."

-Rudolf Diesel, 1911

This quote (featured on the web sites of a lot of vegetable fuel systems) amazes me every time I think about it. Talk about someone being ahead of his time - the fact that Rudolph Diesel said this nearly 100 years ago, and it carries more truth today than ever before is astounding. It's a little known fact that the diesel engine was invented to run on vegetable oils - fuels made from entirely renewable resources that have less carbon emissions, less particulates, and less carcinogens than anything else on the road. It didn't take long before the diesel concept was hijacked by the petroleum industry, but if you ever hear somebody speaking skeptically about diesel vehicles being able to safely run on vegetable oil, just tell them that's what it was invented for.

Anyway, apologies for the digression. The install is finally finished. This whole jumble of fuel lines may look like a rat's nest, but there's a method to the madness. You can see the fuel selector valves that switch from diesel to veggie are mounted on the front frame. The 10 micron veggie filter housing is mounted to the left of the battery box, and is surrounded by copper tubing filled with hot radiator fluid. The red hoses carry the fuel and coolant lines to the tank in back of the car.

The myriad of wires are for the computer system that mounts on the dashboard. Another reason I went with the Greasecar kit is because I really like this concept. The "Co-Pilot" monitors the engine and oil temperatures to take the guesswork out of switching over. The temperature sensors are programmable and tell you exactly when the coolant and oil is hot enough. The computer also helps you regulate the purge cycle and gives you an alarm sound if you try to shut the engine off without ecompletely flushing out the vegetable oil.

This is what everything looks like in the end with the engine cover back on. I'm not running on vegetable oil just yet. I want to take a few days to monitor all the fuel and coolant lines to check for loose connections and air leaks before I start trying to run on veggie. But by the end of the week I'll be running on the cleanest fuel on the road - 100% renewable and not made in the Middle East.

The conversion has been an incredibly rewarding experience, and the process doesn't end here. The technology is still in its infancy, and as companies put out all kinds of new products and auxilliary heaters - flat plate heat exchangers, in-line heaters, 12V DC and 120V AC heaters for running veggie in the winter - I'll continue to read up in the forums and web sites and expand the system accordingly. I've truly caught the bug, and I'm now fascinated by this stuff. If any of you are thinking about doing this yourself, let me know if I can be of any assistance.

Otherwise, I hope to see many of you soon when I embark on my magical veggie mystery tour over the next few months.

Stay tuned...

Monday, August 13, 2007

Greasecar TDI Edition: Part 1

After months of doing homework, research... and a lot of waiting... I'm finally converting my Volkswagen Golf TDI to run on waste vegetable oil. I did my best to educate myself on diesel engines before I bought the car about 2 months ago, and I also spent the better part of the last few months learning about the different conversion systems on the market. Now that I finally have my Greasecar kit and I'm ready to go, I'm going to keep a bit of a running diary for anyone out there who's interested in following along.

There are four companies that I looked at before making my decision - Greasecar, Frybrid, VO Tech, and Golden Fuel Systems. All of them are good guys with great products, and all of them were really helpful over the phone. There's a lot of different ways to set up a system like this, and no one really has it right or wrong. For anyone out there thinking of doing this, you really have to do as much homework as you can and just go with the system that sounds the best for you.

I went with the Greasecar kit for reasons you'll see throughout the posts. Without going into too much of the technical stuff (You can get tons of info about how these systems work on the different company web sites), vegetable oil has the same properties as diesel fuel when it gets hot enough - visualize heating vegetable oil in a frying pan and watching it get thinner - that thickness is called viscosity, and vegetable oil has to have the same viscocity as diesel fuel for it to inject properly into the engine. So the way the system works is you install a separate tank with separate fuel lines for the vegetable oil. You start the vehicle on diesel, and when the engine gets hot enough, bingo, you switch over to grease lightning. The tricky part is remembering to purge the lines and switch back to diesel at the end of your trip, otherwise the oil will cool in the engine and fuel lines and it will be a whole mess.

This is a photo of the ISI Solar company truck (In front of a 3 KW system we installed on a detached garage in White Plains, NY). It's a Ford F350 Powerstroke that my boss did the Greasecar conversion on about 2 years ago. Since my boss is also helping me install the system on my VW, part of why I went with the Greasecar kit is because I knew it would be familiar.

Back to the whole heating thing - in order for the vegetable oil to get hot enough, the system taps into the engine coolant and uses it to heat the vegetable oil in the tank and fuel lines. The first problem with the Greasecar kit that I wanted to remedy is that they use a copper heat exchanger in the fuel tank. Since copper can have an adverse chemical reaction with vegetable oil, I replaced the copper in the tank with 5/8" aluminum tubing. A lot of the other systems have done the same, and to be honest, I can't quite figure out why Greasecar hasn't replaced the copper.

The nice thing about the system is that the tank is designed to fit right in the spare tire well beneath the mat in the trunk. We ran the fuel and coolant lines under the heat shield beneath the car and drilled into the tire well to connect the tank.

After it's all done, the spare tire cuts into your trunk space a bit. I may end up trying to mount the thing along the side.

Next time we'll be mounting the valves under the hood, installing the computer system, and if all goes well, tapping into the fuel and coolant lines for the final connections.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

ISI Showcase

These are sunny days at ISI Solar. We've been selling a lot of systems, and it looks like it's going to be a busy summer. For those of you who have asked about what ended up happening with the rebates in the new year, I'm happy to say that the rebates, although slightly lower, are going to remain solid for at least another 2 years. In fact, the new incentive program includes higher rebates for schools and non-profits, which is a great idea. Hopefully solar will start to have more of a presence in schools and outreach programs in the coming years.

In honor of things looking good, I thought I'd dedicate a post to some of our installations. This one is a 5.1 kw system in Pearl River, New York made with BP solar modules. You might be surprised to know that most of the leading solar module manufacturers in the world are companies you're already familiar with. BP, Sharp, and Sanyo are some of the main manufacturers that we use.

This is an 8.1 kw system in Amawalk, New York -also made with the BP's. This system is actually big enough to produce close to 100% of the home's electricity. Net metering enables the homeowners to store enough credits from their energy production to compensate for the electricity they need at night and on rainy days.

This is a close-up of a 4.8 kw system in Valley Cottage, NY using Sanyo modules. Sanyo makes the most energy-dense module on the market, meaning you get the most wattage out of the smallest square footage (it's also the most expensive if you break down the dollars-per-watt)

This is an 8.8 kw ground-mounted system we did in Montebello, NY using Sharp modules. The homeowner didn't want the system on his roof - he preferred to have a kind of a lawn exhibition.

This is pretty neat. It's a 4.08 kw PV laminate job that we did for the Department of Public Works in Upper Nyack, NY. This is a technology made by United Solar Ovonic in Michigan. It's actually an adhesive that's ideal for standing seam metal roofs. There's no roof penetration, it adheres directly to the roof material to blend in with the fascade.

Click the link if you're interested in having us do a site evaluation for you, or if you'd just like some more information

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sunlight Hype: 40% Efficient Solar Cell

Boeing-Spectrolab's announcement that they had broken the 40% efficiency mark with a new solar cell was enough to wake me from my slumber and write a very long-overdue post. Let me start by saying I'm at the top of the list of solar enthusiasts that would love to believe the breakthrough is going to have a huge imapct on the solar industry in the near future. But I'm a bit skeptical.

Most solar cells use silicon as their principle semiconductor. Without hitting you with excessive jargon, the semiconductor is basically the material that turns photons of sunlight into electricity. The problem with silicon is that it has gotten more expensive in recent years. The solar world has been growing in leaps and bounds, and silicon refineries haven't kept up. There are plenty of plans for expansion, but even as refineries ramp up their production, most analysts don't expect supplies to level out the costs until 2008. So we'll have relatively high costs of solar modules for at least another year or so. In the meantime, plenty of startups have begun investing in alternative semiconductors in hopes of discovering a cheaper alternative to silicon, and that's what Boeing-Spectrolab has done.

I shouldn't be completely dismissive. Boeing-Spectrolab is using a multi-junction solar cell, which is a new technology that has a lot of potential. Silicon cells basically have one layer that transforms anywhere from 12%-22% of all sunlight into DC electricity (depending on the silicon crystal). These multi-junction cells feature multiple layers, each of which transforms a different wave from the entire spectrum of light into electricity. That's where the 40% efficiency comes from. This past May, Sharp announced they had reached 37% with a multi-junction cell that uses gallium-arsenide as its semi-conductor, and Boeing-Spectrolab is probably using something similar.

(Surprise, surprise, Boeing-Spectrolab isn't telling anyone yet what they're using)

But here's why I'm skeptical. Throughout the entire history of solar cells, there's a plethora of researchers and scientists that have reached high percentages in the lab. But the difference between what's possible in a lab under certain specific conditions, and what's economically producible on a large scale is often significant.

Even aside from that, let's say, hypothetically, that the technology does turn out to be commercially viable, most of these alternative semiconductors are rare metals. Not only do most US Geological Surveys indicate that there aren't enough supplies of raw materials of these semiconductors to meet solar market targets for the next thirty years, but most of these metals are also byproducts from other mining processes. If these semiconductors (again, hypothetically) were to become profitable enough that the byproducts became main products, the result could be hundreds and thousands of tons of mining waste that could cause an ecological disaster.

Silicon will never have these problems. It's the most abundant element in the earth's crust, and can be collected and refined with a minimal environmental impact.

But I'm not trying to be captain of the player-haters for the multi junction cells. The truth is that this probably will be the technology of the future. But there are a lot of issues that need to be ironed out before we get there.

Once we find out what exactly Boeing-Spectrolab is doing with these cells, we might be doing carwheels in the streets. This could be the biggest breakthrough in the history of solar cells. But even if it is, I still wonder how many years away we are from working out the kinks to get the product on the market.

Time will tell.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

I Don't Want to Wait in Vain for the Sun

You may remember my recent post on solar incentives in New York State. Until now, a strong combination of rebates and tax incentives has made solar energy for homeowners a lucrative investment.

The reason why I say “until now” is because all of that might change. Sure, it probably won’t, but it might, and it might happen as early as January 1st.

Funding for the solar rebates since 2002 has come from the Systems Benefit Charge – it’s a small fee added on to the electric bills of ratepayers in most of New York State. The Systems Benefit Charge is used to finance all kinds of programs to promote energy efficiency and renewable technologies. (Unless you live in Long Island, take a look at your electric bill, you’ll see it)

But with the implementation of a statewide Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), mandating that 25% of New York’s energy supplies come from renewable resources by 2013, funding for solar rebates will soon be coming from the RPS – a similar, but different ratepayer’s fee from the Systems Benefit Charge. Confused yet?... I know, this is a lot more complicated than it needs to be, but bear with me here for a sec.

The problem is that funding is switching over to the RPS on January 1st, and as of right now, today, November 14, the Public Service Commission still hasn’t announced what the incentives will be. The only thing we do know is that funding in 2006 for solar rebates was about $6 million. Funding in 2007 under the RPS will probably be about $3.5 million. This is the part that really matters, because where the state is going to have to pinch and save a couple of bucks to make up the difference, no one knows.

The rebates might go down from the current $4 per watt to $3.50 per watt. Or the system size might be reduced, so that only smaller systems will qualify for the rebates. No one really knows.

Did I mention that today is November 14? These changes are going to be effective in 46 days, and no one has a clue what they will be. Solar installers are staking their livelihoods on the success of this industry, and they have no idea what kind of business plan they should be developing a month and a half from now. How can this be happening?

Imagine if taxes were going to be restructured across the state, or if health care, educational funding, or social security was going to be almost cut in half, and 40 days prior, the state still wasn’t disclosing the actual logistics.

This is what solar folks are facing right now. We’re all going about our business because it doesn’t seem that anything too drastic is likely to happen. But funding is going to be cut almost in half, and for people trying to make a living in this industry, that’s a pretty big deal. The least they could do is let us know in advance if the rug is going to get pulled out from under us.

Instead… we’ll keep waiting… but it’s getting to be quite a drum roll.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

The Dawn of a New Edison

Google’s big announcement last week that they were installing 1.6 megawatts of solar modules on their California headquarters is the most recent addition to an ever-growing list of corporations making the investment in solar energy. Staples, Whole Foods, and General Motors are some of the players that have already gone solar.

This is a great development for the solar industry, and it’s beneficial enough for the companies involved that they’d be stupid not to do it. Take Google for example. Aside from the great publicity this will give them, they’ll receive financial incentives from California’s solar program, and they’ll qualify for a 30% federal tax credit. The system will pay for itself in energy savings in less than 8 years, and will be productive for over 25 years, saving them millions of dollars on their electricity bill.

Obviously, solar on this grand of a scale is much more lucrative than the 5 kilo-watt system on the roof of your neighbor’s house. Certain third party financers are realizing this, and making a living off of these large companies by doing the financing for them.

The most successful and well known to date is Sun Edison. They’re using a financing model called Power Purchase Agreements (PPA). The New York Times just featured these PPA’s on the front page of the Business Section last weekend

Here’s how it works: Sun Edison installs, owns, and maintains the solar system on the roof of Company A. Instead of Company A paying the power utility $0.15/kilo-watt hour, Company A signs a 25 year PPA with Sun Edison to pay $0.14/kWh, that way their electricity is cheaper, cleaner, and they’re not responsible for the solar panels. Sun Edison takes care of all that.

(I just pulled those prices out of thin air, by the way. The actual PPA’s vary from contract to contract and region to region.)

The model works for Sun Edison because now instead of Company A getting the rebate incentives and tax credits, they get them. And instead of Company A making up the system costs in 8 years, Sun Edison recoups their initial investment, and laughs all the way to the bank for the next 25 years. And Sun Edison does this enough times for enough different clients that they make a fortune.

Not bad.

And the customers love the trouble it saves them. A big corporation might know that solar can save them a lot of money, but they don’t feel like going through the hassle. They don’t want to have to put the capital costs up front, and they don’t want to have to maintain a gigantic power plant on their roof that they know nothing about. Companies like Staples and Whole Foods have more important things to worry about.

Solar systems like these cost a lot of money, and to make it work Sun Edison is always luring in third party investors. If you’re skeptical of the financial viability of all, consider that their investor portfolio includes over $20 million from Goldman Sachs.

Don't Take My Word For It

Click these links for the Sun Edison web site, the New York Times article, and here is the Press Release for the Staples Project in California

Friday, October 20, 2006

Solar Power Conference 2006 - Part 3 - Google and Schwarzeneger

The conference wrapped up today with Governor Schwarzeneger making an appearance to address the packed house. The speech was typical Ah-nold, but he got a huge standing ovation from the crowd, thanks to his signing of the California Solar Initiative last month to put $3.2 billion into the solar industry in California over the next ten years.

I was joking with some of the solar guys who have been with the industry through thick and thin over the years: "If someone came to you in 1990, and told you that someday the solar industry was going to be saved and championed by Arnold Schwarzeneger, would you have believed it?"

No, they wouldn't.

But nonetheless, here we are, looking at a great model for how to develop the solar industry worldwide, and a Hollywood body-builder-turned-Governor is to thank. Go figure.

The other big story of the week was Google. On Monday Google announced plans to put 1.6 Megawatts on their Bay Area headquarters - over 9,000 solar panels, enough to power 500 average California homes. Their headquarters is a 6-building facility, and they consume a ton of electricity, so even a system this big is only going to cover about a third of their overall demand. Still, a system on this kind of scale will pay for itself in energy savings in about 8 years, and the system will be warranted for 25, so it's a great financial investment for them.

Here's the Wall Street Journal write up.

This is the kind of stuff the industry needs. Staples has already put over 500 kw on their California Distribution Headquarters, and Whole Foods recently put 121 kw on their distribution center in Connecticut. The more we see high profile projects like these, the better.

In any case, lots of great stuff from the conference. But I decided I can write about all of it one idea at a time and string it out over a month, so why shoehorn it all in now? So whoever's out there reading this little blog, check back soon.